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Bill Monroe, TV journalist and 'Meet the Press' host, dies at 90

By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 17, 2011; 10:21 PM

Bill Monroe, a journalist best known for his nine-year tenure as moderator of the public-affairs talk show "Meet the Press" during the 1970s and '80s, died Feb. 17 at the ManorCare nursing home in Potomac. He was 90 and had complications from hypertension.

Starting on NBC-TV in 1947, "Meet the Press" is one of the longest-running programs in American broadcast history and a staple for many Sunday-morning viewers. Mr. Monroe had long worked for NBC News in Washington and had appeared as a panelist on "Meet the Press" before being tapped in 1975 as its moderator.

He succeeded Lawrence Spivak, the program's co-creator, and was later followed by journalists such as Marvin Kalb, Garrick Utley and Tim Russert, who led the show for 17 years until his death in 2008.

In tone, Mr. Monroe's "Meet the Press" was said to resemble a sedate news conference or congressional hearing - in stark contrast with the high-volume, argumentative talk shows that became increasingly commonplace in the 1980s and beyond.

As moderator, Mr. Monroe led panelists in interviewing public figures from the worlds of economics, politics and international affairs. He was known as a "forceful but fair questioner," according to Time magazine; Newsday television critic Verne Gay called him "highly respected but not highly feared."

The show sometimes broke news under Mr. Monroe, as when President Jimmy Carter announced on the program that the United States would boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

One of the more memorable moments of Mr. Monroe's "Meet the Press" tenure had less to do with policy discussions than with the impromptu comedy of live television.

He was interviewing then-Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin on a satellite broadcast when Begin's earpiece malfunctioned. The prime minister was given a replacement that allowed him to hear producers' behind-the-scenes chatter.

As the interview drew to a close, Begin heard a voice bark a command meant for Mr. Monroe: "Say goodbye." Begin, confused, repeated the statement as if asking a question: "Say goodbye?"

Begin "was a bit annoyed," said Betty Dukert, the program's former executive producer. "Bill laughed about it forever."

In 1981, ABC launched a competing Sunday talk show, "This Week With David Brinkley." Its popularity soon overtook that of "Meet the Press," and the leadership at NBC decided to try a new, two-moderator format.

Mr. Monroe left the program in 1984, and Kalb and Roger Mudd took over as a team.

William Blanc Monroe Jr. was born July 17, 1920, in New Orleans. He graduated in 1942 from Tulane University in his home town, then served in the Army Air Forces in Italy during World War II.

Afterward, he worked in radio and print journalism in New Orleans. He once interviewed celebrated jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong - who had been barred because of his race from the city's finest hotels - as the musician shaved in a shabby rented room.

Civil rights became one of the hallmarks of Mr. Monroe's early career. While news director in the early 1950s at the New Orleans NBC-TV affiliate, he produced some of the station's first editorials and often weighed in on school desegregation. His efforts landed him on a White Citizens' Council's list of "traitors to the South," he once said, and led to threats to him and his family.

He was married to Elizabeth Harrison Monroe from 1941 until her death in 2008.

Survivors include their four daughters, Lee Monroe of West Hartford, Conn., Arthe Monroe "Taysie" Phillips of Thurmont, Catherine Monroe of Manassas and Maria Monroe Poole of Union Bridge, Md.; and five grandchildren.

Mr. Monroe became NBC's Washington bureau chief in 1961 and later D.C. editor of the "Today" show, a job for which he received the prestigious Peabody Award for broadcast journalism.

After leaving "Meet the Press," Mr. Monroe was the editor of the old Washington Journalism Review, now the American Journalism Review. He was twice the ombudsman for the Stars and Stripes newspaper, which covers the U.S. military, and edited the Pentagon's "Early Bird" internal news-clipping service. He retired about a decade ago.

Mr. Monroe was a past president of the organization now known as the Radio Television Digital News Association, which presented him with its Paul White Award for lifetime achievement in 1978.

Throughout his career, he was critical of the Federal Communications Commission's regulation of broadcast media - a first step, he said, toward abridging the constitutionally guaranteed rights of free speech and free press.

"The effect of government control on broadcast news is to make it bland, to inhibit it, to make it somewhat less courageous, less inclined to initiative than the print media," Mr. Monroe said in a 1980 interview. "The whole regulatory system is a monster that has done the public much more harm than good."

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